Favoring Unions at the Expense of Workplace Democracy

So, you make the daily trek to the office one morning anticipating a typical business-owner type of day. At the early morning staff get-together it is announced by one employee: "We are on our way to becoming a union shop."

How could this be? Doesn't the federal government get involved here? How does this person know how the rest of my employees feel on this issue?

Well, a bill moving through the U.S. House, ironically called the "Employee Free Choice Act," H.R. 800, aims to fully change the rules of the game when it comes to union organizing. The long-standing "secret ballot" system, where employees cast a private vote for or against union representation in a federally-supervised election, would be replaced with a mandatory "card-check" approach.

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Card-check what? The card check allows union organizers to solicit signatures from employees, ostensibly in support of union representation. If organizers obtain a simple majority of employee signatures for union representation, the business can be certified as a union shop. Wow, that was easy.

Under the current system, employees express their will through a private vote in an election managed by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). It begins when 30 percent of a company's employees express interest in joining a union. A petition is brought to the NLRB, where a majority-rules secret ballot follows.

Under a mandatory card-check system, everyone knows exactly where an employee stands on union representation — fellow co-workers, the union and the employer. There is no right to privacy under card check.

"I cannot fathom how we can sit here today and debate a proposal to take away a worker's democratic right to vote in a secret-ballot election and call it ‘Employee Free Choice,' " said Rep. John Kline in an opening statement during February 8 hearings on Capitol Hill.

H.R. 800 has 233 co-sponsors in the House. Committee action will take place soon, and it is expected to pass. The legislation will move to the full House where a vote is anticipated later this month, or early March.

Favoring Unions at the Expense of Workplace Democracy

Passing H.R. 800 is the AFL-CIO's "top priority," and with good reason. A card-check system would cut the private-ballot step out of the process, and as such would provide unions extraordinary leverage and influence in organizing.

From an economics standpoint, such a system is more "efficient" as the legislative text of the bill boasts. But such efficiency mostly benefits unions as card checks can be managed and executed in turn-key fashion, targeting more companies – meaning more small companies.
Oh, and let's not forget to mention the penalties for an employer who "discharges or discriminates against an employee," or threatens such, during the card-check drive. Under H.R. 800, a business owner would be slapped with a civil penalty along with a per-violation fine of up to $20,000.

Well, business owners know how such rules can be abused to intimidate, or stop them from even expressing their point of view. If a business owner merely states the facts with respect to how union representation may impact business growth, jobs, benefits, flexibility on the job, etc. will some interpret this as a "threat"?

(Go to the AFL-CIO's "Employee Free Choice Act" Summary on the legislation to read for yourself what the bill would do.)

What's broken, the system or unions? Workers have long enjoyed a government-protected right to join a labor union. Labor unions once thrived under the secret-ballot system. At their zenith, 37 percent of the private workforce belonged to a union in 1960 — twenty-five years following the act that established the election system.

So why aren't people joining labor unions? The relevancy issue is important as union membership continues to decline. Just last month, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported yet another fall in the ranks of union membership. With respect to the private sector workforce, union membership dropped from 7.8 percent in 2005 to 7.4 percent in 2006.

Maybe America's workforce doesn't seem to think labor unions are a good deal. Quite simply, the market has changed but the value proposition of labor unions has not.

The fundamental issue, however, is not about labor unions. It's about America's workforce. A critical employee right is at stake. Will it be trampled upon, or played with, merely to prop up labor's declining membership roles?

"A worker's right to a secret ballot election is an intrinsic right in our democracy that should not be legislated away at the behest of special interest groups," said U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao in a statement regarding the issue.

Sticking with that position would be the right thing for the administration to do.

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Karen Kerrigan is president & CEO of the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council, a research and advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. that works to protect small business and promote entrepreneurship. She is also founder of Women Entrepreneurs, Inc. , an association helping women business owners succeed through education, networking and advocacy. Kerrigan can be reached at kkerrigan@sbecouncil.org .